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Retail: Elements in the Evolution of Strait Music

Christian Wissmuller • Issue Articles • September 7, 2016

Clint Strait, vice president and third generation owner of Strait Music, explains how Baldwin Pianos, The Beatles, and best buddies were elemental in the evolution of his grandfathers’ humble piano and organ franchise to what is today Austin’s only full-line music store.

“We originally opened Strait Piano and Organ in 1963,” Strait says, “My grandfather was a piano salesperson down in Houston at a place called Pace Piano Company and they became a Baldwin franchise. An opportunity arose for him to open a Baldwin Piano franchise in Austin and he moved the family up here. Austin was a much smaller town then – a little college town actually. I guess my dad was probably 9 years old. My grandfather opened Strait Piano and Organ with one grand, one upright, and one organ. He had a piano technician, he was the salesperson, and there was one bookkeeper. That was basically how we got started. That bookkeeper, Amy Falcone, actually retired about four years ago.”

David on the left (Piano Manager), Dan Strait, Clint Strait, and Robert StraitWhen Dan opened that first store in a downtown Austin shopping center, his motto was, “Where customers become friends” and those “friends” helped him to grow from a humble Baldwin Piano franchise to the incorporated, Strait Music Company, in only four years. “My grandfather and my grandmother always joked that every time my grandfather wanted to expand into a different line of business, my grandmother told him he was crazy,” Clint chuckles, “but it worked out OK for him.” Elaborating on the 1967 expansion Clint reveals, “The original impetus for expansion was Baldwin Pianos. I believe at the time they owned the Vox Amps line and The Beatles were playing Vox Amps. The Beatles just exploded in the music industry, so we started selling amps and guitars. It was easy for us to get the line because we were already a Baldwin store. We expanded to band and orchestra at some point after that.”

The Flood

The evolvement of the prosperous business has not been without struggle. In 1981, the elements proved fatal when Austin, suffered from a disastrous deluge. The Memorial Day flood claimed lives and caused ruin among many of the downtown businesses. As noted on Strait Music’s website: “The catastrophic Memorial Day flood of 1981 claimed many lives in the area and nearly ‘sank’ the business and all of its inventory. There was over 7 feet of water in the piano department alone and pianos floated off down the street. We had no flood insurance either. Through help from our vendors and a lot of good loyal customers, the business stayed afloat. After those dark days, Dan decided it was time to turn the reigns over to his son Robert, who is still the company president today. Robert endured a second flood in the holiday season of 1991 as well.”

Through the years Robert Strait, Clint’s father, continued to expand the business and moved the location of the flagship store in 1995, and again in 2001, all within the Austin area. Currently Strait Music has two locations one in in the south end of town and the other in the north. “Finally we got out of that building (the original store location) and bought our first piece of property,” Clint says, “We were there for six years and then bought another piece of property that we’re still in today. We certainly don’t have any plans to move our bigger store. We have a second store in North Austin that we lease and it’s been great for us. I think we opened that one up in ‘98. We are out of all flood plains.”

Taking Care of Business

The main flagship store, located in South Austin, occupies 24,000 square feet. The store has eight departments; guitar and fretted, band and orchestra, pianos, pro audio and recording, keyboards, percussion and drums, amps and effects, and sheet music. In the tradition of Dan Straits’ motto, “Where customers become friends,” patrons are taken care of over the proverbial long haul. Strait Music has a shop on-site where they service everything they sell. They also lease space to a separately run school of music in their main South Austin location. “I’ve got seven full-time band techs, one electronics tech, three guitar techs, and a full piano shop that’s capable of doing rebuilds. We do everything,” says Strait. “If you got a keyboard, an amp, a speaker or a mixer that breaks, we do that. We make service calls to customers for their pianos, but we also can bring a piano in and do extensive work on it here on our shop.”

As Austin’s sole full-line MI retailer, Strait carries all of the “heavy hitters,” according to Clint. “In the guitar department, we carry Taylor – we’re a big Taylor dealer – Martin, Fender, Gibson, Gretsch, Ibanez, Cordoba, and Yamaha. With pianos, we are the exclusive Yamaha dealer in the Austin market. We also sell some Pearl River and Cable-Nelson.” Clint explains “On the band and orchestra side of things our biggest sellers are Yamaha, Conn-Selmer, and Buffet. In Pro Audio, it’s Yamaha, Roland, Mackie, Presonus, Shure, Audio-Technica, and more. We also sell lighting, mostly Chuavet and a few others.”

Online sales are available through the company’s site, though they are not integral to the business. “We’ve made small strides on our own website, but I would say now that we’ve gotten more involved with Reverb, we are seeing a lot more of our gear move there. We use it as a way to sell things that ‘had a birthday’ as we like to say, or maybe ‘multiple birthdays’,” Clint concedes, “You don’t want stuff sitting around too long. So we’ve really been taking advantage of Reverb and we’ve certainly take advantage of tapping into that marketplace and being able to sell some of our stuff that way.”

Community involvement and connection with people is a big part of the business. “We have three full-time road reps calling on local schools,” says Strait. “In Texas, kids start band in the sixth grade so we sign up a whole heck of a lot of incoming sixth-graders to do band rentals. Certainly, right now we’re at the time of the year where we’re going out to the schools and we’re signing up parents at recruiting nights and getting their instruments reserved for next fall. In July, August, and September is kind of our busy season (in the band and orchestra department), when tons of people are coming in for their kiddos for the following year.”

Austin, known for its trendy music festivals and culturally rich environment, has served as the ideal home for this thriving music store. Clint describes Strait Music’s appreciation and contribution to that culture: “We’re really lucky to be in this town. Music is a part of our culture. Our identity as a city is rooted in music. I would say that Strait Music in particular has been a part of the music scene locally for a really long time and almost synonymous as the local music store in this town, we’re lucky. That (reputation) was built by my father and grandfather before me, and hopefully I can maintain that. I can’t tell you how many times I hear, ‘Oh, your grandfather gave me this when I started to record my first album,’ coming from famous musicians. My grandfather helped out Eric Johnson when he was getting started. We try to do everything and cater to everyone and I think we do a pretty good job of that. I mean, I see Jimmy Von in here and I see Eric Johnson in here and then I see right behind them, a family with two or three kids running around banging guitars against the wall.”

MI Market Musings

The future of Strait Music seems to lie in good hands. Strait says, “I’m curious as to what is next. I’m very young in this business and I’m learning that popular music tends to steer buying trends. Of course, there’s all of the EDM stuff going on right now, but I feel like the shelf 

Four Generations

life on that is probably not too far off. So, I’m wondering what the next thing is going to be? Before EDM, everybody was buying acoustic guitars and folk instruments. We were nicknaming the trend, ‘the Mumford and Sons effect.’ That’s tailed off a little bit. The ukulele is still going strong. It’s been…back in the ‘90s there would be guys telling me you couldn’t sell enough beginner guitar packs because it was all about grunge rock and Nirvana, but electric sales since then have gone down slightly. Is that the next thing? Of course, if we knew the answer that would be great! I’d prefer the EDM craze end because there’s not a lot of instruments involved there.”

From Baldwin Pianos, to the The Beatles with their Vox Amps, to Austin’s loyal best buddies, Strait Music seems to have flourished out of the perfect environment for success. They have not only survived difficult floods, a few big moves, and passing MI trends, they continue to thrive, with the support of the community they care for, just like the man who began it all. “My grandmother passed away not that long ago. But my grandfather just turned 90. He still plays golf two or three times a week, he’s doing great!” boasts Clint.

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